Using a Teleporter Is Suicide!

TeleporterLast week, Matt Yglesias brought my attention to some work by a group of scientists on the potential for human teleportation. The article (That I had to look up myself because Yglesias didn’t provide it!) is, Travelling by Teleportation (pdf) by D. Roberts, J. Nelms, D. Starkey, and S. Thomas. The question to all of these people is one of bandwidth. The amount of data required to define a human is so large that even at unbelievable speeds, it would take unbelievable amounts of time. This misses the whole point.

In 1970, James Blish wrote the second ever Star Trek novel, Spock Must Die. At the beginning of the novel, McCoy expresses his concern that every time he is transported, he dies only to be replaced with an exact copy of himself somewhere else. Later in the novel, a transporter malfunction causes two Spocks to occur—one of which “must die.” Whatever. The main point is that McCoy is right.

Look, boys and girls. I don’t think this is hard. Imagine a clone. A clone is a genetic duplicate of a different organism. It is no more the same organism than a perfect copy of a photograph is the same photograph. The scientists take this into account, of course. They include all the quantum states of all the molecules and that kind of thing. But all that does is make the teleportated copy think it is the original. It is still a copy!

This brings us to some very big ontological question. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot for the past few years. I haven’t figured out enough to go into it in detail—I’m not sure I ever will have it that well figured out. But the idea is that consciousness is a kind of fiction. We only exist for an instant, and are then replaced by another version of us: Version Infinity Plus One. If that thinking is correct, then there would be no problem with teleportation, because we are effectively being replaced by a copy every instant anyway. So what the hell: the teleporter is no more a killer than any other activity.

The idea here is not as far fetched as it may appear. Quantum mechanics has always bothered me: what happens to those other probabilities that don’t happen? Is it possible that all of existence is just an infinitely branching causality chain? Is my life but one of an infinite chain working its way through time? Or does time even exist? Are humans as clueless to the external existence of our lives as trees are to history (because they cannot form memories)? All of this is bizarre, but no more bizarre than existence itself.

But every day we must make practical choices. A teleporter could one day be a practical choice. But I’m with Dr. McCoy and I would go a step further: anyone who would use a teleporter would be insane.


I was once given a thought experiment. Imagine that you and I sit across from each other. And one by one, the cells in my body are exchanged with the cells in your body. At what point would I become you?

5 thoughts on “Using a Teleporter Is Suicide!

  1. @JMF – It is Pratchett at his best. (He has problems with descriptions, but his dialog is great.) The argument the philosopher is making is too Nietzsche. I would say that what I am now is just one manifestation of what I am more generally. But as I try to explain to my Catholic friends: that doesn’t mean that what I think of as myself is eternal as a going concern. Death matters. I don’t.

    But Death is one of Pratchett’s best characters.

  2. @JMF – I do like the small caps in the sense that in his books I know that Death is coming and as I said, I really like him. However, being a typesetting nerd, small caps bother me because they are hard to read. But I was glad to see that the page did typeset it correctly.

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